The Politics of Dissociation

Column: Why populism, nationalism, and tribalism will outlast Trump and Clinton

BY:

"Besieged Globalists Ponder What Went Wrong," read the headline in the New York Times.

What’s a "globalist"? They are, according to the Times, the "advocates of a more densely enmeshed world," "concerned internationalists," "humanitarians, leaders of nongovernmental organizations, donors, investors, app peddlers, celebrities," a caste of managers, bureaucrats, apparatchiks, media figures, and billionaires working across borders to solve problems such as climate change, the Syrian refugee crisis, Third-World poverty, racial and sexual injustice, and interplanetary colonization. They are the busybody winners of the knowledge economy. And they are feeling glum.

The project of global integration—the free movement of capital, goods, and people for the improvement of man’s estate as defined by the postmodern West—is at a standstill. The nationalist governments of Russia and China subvert world order. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is in limbo. The Brits voted to leave the European Union. Europeans have turned on Brussels. There is this annoying issue of political Islam. Above all there is Donald Trump, the man who made "globalist" an epithet.

The Times sent reporter Anand Giridharadas to the final meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative. He heard the former president lament the "zero-sum" world of "tribal" politics exemplified by his wife’s opponent. What Giridharadas did not hear, he said, was "anyone who could explain populist ire with authenticity."

Panelists described the theoretical and actual costs of tribalism, nationalism, and populism. They imagined themselves a refugee, an immigrant, a villager coping with hunger and disease. But they could not imagine themselves—could never imagine themselves—a supporter of Brexit or of Donald J. Trump.

Giridharadas followed up with Clinton over email. How do you balance, he asked, "help for Kenya with care for Kentucky, in an age when Kentucky anger threatens to push the United States toward less engagement in foreign problems?"

Clinton’s response was perceptive. "What you call ‘Kentucky anger,’" he wrote, "is being fed in part by the feeling that the most powerful people in the government, economy, and society no longer care about them, or look down on them." And with some justification.

This is a moment of dissociation—of unbundling, fracture, disaggregation, dispersal. But the disconnectedness is not merely social. It is also political—a separation of the citizenry from the governments founded in their name. They are meant to have representation, to be heard, to exercise control. What they have found instead is that ostensibly democratic governments sometimes treat their populations not as citizens but as irritants.

The sole election that has had any bearing on the fate of Obamacare, for example, was the one that put Barack Obama in the White House. The special election of Scott Brown to the Senate did not stop Democratic majorities from passing the law over public disapproval. Nor did the 2010, 2012, or 2014 elections prevent or slow down the various agencies of the federal government from reorganizing the health care sector according to the latest technocratic fashions.

The last big immigration law was passed under President Clinton in an attempt to reduce illegal entry. Since then the bureaucracy has been on autopilot, admitting huge numbers to the United States and unable (and sometimes unwilling) to cope with the surge in illegal immigration at the turn of the century. In 2006, 2007, and 2013, public opinion stopped major liberalizations of immigration law. Then the president used executive power to protect certain types of illegal immigrant from deportation anyway.

Coal miners have no voice in deliberations over their futures. Only the courts stand in the way of the Clean Power Plan that will end the coal industry and devastate the Appalachian economy. Congress is unable to help. The president went over the heads of the Senate by calling his carbon deal with China an "agreement" and not a treaty.

There has been no accountability for an IRS that abused its powers to target conservative nonprofits, for Hillary Clinton who disregarded national security in the operation of her private email server, for the FBI that treated Clinton with kid gloves while not following up on individuals who became terrorists. The most recent disclosures in the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., show the terrorist Omar Mateen was clearly motivated by devotion to radical Islam and to ISIS. We are only finding this out now because of a lawsuit filed by a news organization. What is the FBI afraid of?

Progressives disregard constitutional objections as outmoded artifacts of a benighted era. Who cares how Obamacare was passed or implemented, the uninsured rate is down. Why should Obama submit a treaty to the Senate when he knows it won’t be ratified; the fate of the planet is at stake. The absence of comprehensive immigration reform isn’t evidence that progressives failed to marshal a constitutional majority for passage. It’s reason for the president to test the limit of his powers. Nor does government failure result from overextension and ineptitude. It is caused by a lack of resources.

Is it really surprising that our democracy has become more tenuous as the distance between citizen and government has increased? A large portion of the electorate, it would seem, is no longer willing to tolerate a bipartisan establishment that seems more concerned with the so-called "globalist" issues of trade, migration, climate, defense of a rickety world order, and transgender rights than with the experiences of joblessness, addiction, crime, worry for one’s children, and not-so-distant memories of a better, stronger, more respected America.

These concerns are often written off as racism, or resentment, or status anxiety—as reaction, backlash, atavism, obstacles to universal progress. The same was said of McCarthy in the 1950s, the New Right in the 1970s, the Tea Party eight years ago. But in every case, including this one, the populist upsurge signified a genuine and not entirely irrational objection of a part of the electorate to its dissociation from the life of the polity.

Clinton Global Initiative regulars would benefit from reading "Donald Trump and the American Crisis" by John Marini:

Those most likely to be receptive of Trump are those who believe America is in the midst of a great crisis in terms of its economy, its chaotic civil society, its political corruption, and the inability to defend any kind of tradition—or way of life derived from that tradition—because of the transformation of its culture by the intellectual elites. This sweeping cultural transformation occurred almost completely outside the political process of mobilizing public opinion and political majorities. The American people themselves did not participate or consent to the wholesale undermining of their way of life, which government and the bureaucracy helped to facilitate by undermining those institutions of civil society that were dependent upon a public defense of the old morality.

Marini refers to institutions such as the family, church, and school, institutions charged with forming the character of a citizen, of instructing him in codes of morality and service, in the traditions and history of his country, in the case of the church directing him spiritually and providing him a definitive account of the cause and purpose of life. These are precisely the institutions that have been brought under the sway of bureaucracies and courts heavily insulated from elections, from public opinion, from majority rule. And as the public has lost authority over decision-making in the private sphere, as the culture has become more alien, more bewildering, more hostile to "the old morality," as President Clinton keeps saying rather fatuously that the fates of Kenya and Kentucky are linked, is it any wonder voters have sought out a vehicle for their disgust and opposition?

What should worry the "globalists" of every party is that this revolt is not an aberration from our current trajectory but parallel to it. The forces animating Donald Trump will persist so long as Bill Clinton and friends insulate themselves, their families, and their government from the unvarnished, intemperate, uncouth, and entirely legitimate grievances of the people.

Matthew Continetti   Email Matthew | Full Bio | RSS
Matthew Continetti is the Editor in Chief of the Washington Free Beacon. He can be reached at comments@freebeacon.com.